A March of Stereotypes

Last week, Becky Miller discussed the tendency of modern SF to stereotype women as aggressive protagonists who do what men do, only in heels. Her well-made points turned my thoughts to the treatment of women in speculative fiction. The portrayal of women has varied greatly from era to era and from author to author. It even varies from science fiction to fantasy; fantasy – built up from tales crowned with queens, fairies, and witches – possesses deeper traditions of vital female characters. Yet taking a broad view of speculative fiction, and especially of science fiction, one may discern the march of female stereotypes.

The reigning stereotype of early sci-fi was the young lady, invariably attractive, who was the love interest of the young hero, or the daughter of the old professor, or – this was not rare – both. Often, this young woman played Watson to the men’s Sherlock, asking what the audience doesn’t know. Thus the woman provided a method to resolve the eternal writer’s problem of the info-dump, and an infinitely more graceful one than having the hero and the professor tell each other what both already know. More significantly, the young woman is usually the story’s heart – the hero’s inspiration and the center of his emotion. Often enough, she is the damsel in distress, awaiting rescue. In short, early sci-fi stereotypes fit women into classic ideals of femininity, though it must be noted that this did not wholly sideline women from the action. It was not unusual for the hero’s love interest to accompany him into peril, nor unknown for her to use a weapon when the crisis demanded it.

Another, less genteel stereotype is typified by the women of the original Star Trek – the Federation servicewomen in miniskirts and the endless parade of female aliens who probably were not warm under those lights. Unlike the vaguely Victorian women of earlier sci-fi, those women were allowed to enter the story in their own right, not needing a personal relationship with a male character for admission. At the same time, their presentation – sexualized in the very teeth of common sense – objectified them in a way that the idealized women of a more old-fashioned tradition were not. This stereotype was probably most prominent between the fading of the old ideals and the dominance of the new, but it existed before then and is not extinct now.

The stereotype now ascendant is that of the action heroine, whose prowess defies old notions of feminine weakness and, at times, the laws of nature. Princess Leia is the embodiment of the new SF heroine: assertive, authoritative, confident in the use of weapons and in everything else, sarcastic and sharp-tongued to the point of being obnoxious. (If anyone disagrees with this last statement, let me just say: Get this walking carpet out of my way.) We want a heroine who can scrap with the biggest, toughest of men, and due to standards of female beauty strictly enforced in Hollywood, we are accustomed to heroines who do this while weighing just north of 100 pounds.

But despite this and other absurdities, there is nothing inherently wrong with the confident, sarcastic woman who knows how to make use of an arsenal. For that matter, there was nothing wrong with the sweetheart or daughter who is the hero’s heart. (The female military officer in a miniskirt we can do without.) The real error of this march of stereotypes is not that speculative fiction features a certain kind of woman, but that it neglects other kinds.